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Opinion How I woke up to my unhealthy attitude to alcohol

The photos of a friend’s wedding were the tipping point for me – they showed me what I’d been doing, but I couldn’t remember anything.

WE ALL LIKE a drink, it’s part of our national stereotype, right? Well, now new statistics prove that it’s not so much a stereotype as fact; last year 75% of all alcohol taken was consumed as part of a binge drinking session, and we collectively spend about €50m on booze per week. Alcohol, and the heavy consumption of it, has become normalised.

I drink, like most 25 year olds – probably a bit more than I should, but a lot less than I used to. I have finally learned the word ‘control’ but I had to go tee-total at 24 to get there.

The photos of a friend’s wedding were the tipping point for me. They showed me what I’d been doing, but what had I actually done? Unfortunately the day is largely lost to the deep, dark recesses of my amygdala, the part of the brain that stores emotional memories and, ironically, is in charge of decision making.

The slide into dependency

I asked my friends the next day: “Did I do anything?” with the classic sodden shame, hoping they would, of course, say I was the life and soul, a revolving glitterball of glorious sozzled fun. Drinkers like to draw a line under the night before, as if it never happened, it’s all too easy to forget it did. But not for those friends and family who watch and wait for the inevitable slide from jovial to juvenile, bitter and aggressive.

We go out and have a couple of drinks until we achieve that prime moment of intoxication when the world and all those in it are shinning lights of love. For some reason though we keep drinking, fooled that this feeling with continue, can only get better! Next thing you know you’re friends have left you throwing up in a toilet after you abused them all.

I know that the morning after the wedding I woke up with my dress in tatters. I woke up at home, thankfully, although how I got there remains a mystery. A terrifying thought that haunts me throughout the day: what might have happened? Was I even able to lock the door behind me?

Hiding what we’re ashamed of

Dostoevsky wrote: “Man is a creature that can get accustomed to anything”, it seems I became all too accustomed to drink at 24. Lots and often. While I wouldn’t label myself an alcoholic I had definitely developed an unhealthy attitude to drinking.

We’ve long since left behind the idea that alcoholics spend their lives on the street with a ruddy complexion. In fact, what I have discovered is that alcoholics, drug users and anyone else using some kind of substance as relief, can be incredibly clever. Adept at hiding things: bottles, the fact they’re intoxicated, how much they’ve really had. My handbag used to contain, for example, chewing gum, mints, perfume, a hidden half-bottle and a mixer drink for drinking in public. All things designed to hide the truth.

I’d be foolish to think people hadn’t noticed. I drank to numb my feelings, yet when I got drunk they reared up like wild horses and their thundering hooves beat me to the floor. Later I would wake up, once again full of shame and self-loathing and swearing never to touch another drop.

Scream, rage, punch a pillow, lie on the floor and do nothing. That’s what I should do. I suffer from depression, as do a lot of drinkers. Despite medical advice we think it’s better to self-medicate with booze which makes the depression worse. An anti-depressant in your stomach and a depressant in your glass makes no sense to anyone.

Drawing strength from others’ stories

Then there are the real horrors – things you don’t know if you don’t regularly drink to excess. One recovering alcoholic described the sweating, shakes, stomach cramps, constipation, boredom and anxiety (no wonder it must seem so tempting to launch yourself from the wagon into awaiting bottles). Their story pushed me further from the temptation of a pint.

I have also taken some positives though from reading alcoholics’ personal accounts and talking to them about their drinking. One of the most important things for me was that thinking about having a drink is actually OK. It reinforced my own strength when I made the decision not to do it. I wasn’t buying any booze, I wasn’t opening any bottles or having to stash the evidence in my wardrobe. I’d thought about it and I’d said no.

Anyone that has ever tried to diet and berated themselves for dreaming about cakes, chocolate or crisps will understand that removing the thing you want doesn’t remove the thoughts of them. It doesn’t stop them being out there, enjoyed by everyone else but you. But reminding yourself that you have made a conscious decision not to drink, or eat the cake, and that you’ve fulfilled your promise to yourself actually works. It’s basic positive reinforcement, operant conditioning. In fact the more I think about it all the stronger I feel for not giving in.

Learning to say no

As I said at the start, I do still drink, after giving it up for three months. But I’m careful about the way I do it, even a ‘session’ in my local is considered, diluted by time and actual enjoyment, not sneaking off to the loos to top-up. I don’t drink in secret and try not to drink alone and, if I do, I take stock, reflect on my current mental state and try to occupy myself with something more productive as well as talking to people about how I’m actually feeling.

I’m similar to, I imagine, the two thirds of 18 to 24 year olds from the stats; I don’t want to give up drinking entirely but I’ve given up the constant fear of my liver collapsing, the constant embarrassment caused by drunken lunging-snogs, stupid rows and tears only brought on by the drink.

The only way we can address this across a generation of drinkers is by making it acceptable to talk about and recognise the signs of a burgeoning problem. You don’t have to be swigging cider from a paper bag under a bridge to be an alcoholic, we need to reframe our relationship with drinking, take the buzz out of it, and reminding ourselves to say no every once in a while.

Sober Ireland: What’s it like to not drink in Ireland?

Poll: Would you be comfortable going to a pub or club and not drinking?

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